Monthly Archives: February 2016

What does this character do for your story?

character for reasonIN LIFE, PEOPLE HAPPEN; IN STORIES, YOU WRITE THEM IN

I’m just about ready to start revising the excruciatingly rough draft of Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, and my last task is one I thought I wasn’t going to have to do much work on.

Why? Because many of the characters in PURGATORY carry over to NETHERWORLD.

And really, since I am writing a trilogy – split for the convenience of size, not because the stories are separate – you’d think I already had my characters well in hand, and that I would just give them a quick review, add a few, drop a few, and be able to move on.

I’m dropping four characters, and picking up four characters.

It doesn’t seem like much, does it?

And they are minor characters; our main characters, Kary, Andrew, and Bianca will of course be there for the whole, but there are changes, and some of the characters (two of whom come back for Book 3) don’t belong in this volume.

That’s typical, and not at all unusual.

Relationships between characters are half the story

But my plotting software* gives roughly equal space to plot/theme – and characters.

We don’t see the world abstractly. We don’t sit on the front porch and muse about honor.

We compare friends, one of whom acts honorably and responsibly (most of the time), with the one who seems to have an excuse for anything that somehow puts the responsibility for her actions elsewhere.

And from how it hits us, and from what the results of their behavior is, we come to form our own opinion of whether standing up is better than slithering out from under. We understand an abstract concept by its concrete representation in a form our brains are designed to respond to.

Characters are chosen to represent extremes

There isn’t much point in wasting space in a story on two characters who are very similar in their outlooks on life, regardless of how common it is in real life to surround yourself with people you have a lot in common with.

Stories are created from CONFLICT. DRAMA. TENSION.

Stories have word limits. Yes, even long stories like Pride’s Children. If the writer spends too much time belaboring the obvious, the reader starts skipping. Elmore Leonard recommended leaving out the parts people skip.

In Albert Zukerman’s useful book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, he has an example which stuck with me: Ken Follett, in an early draft, had included two policemen in The Man From St. Petersburg. Zuckerman recommended combining them – and making the single remaining character a much more important personage – to kick up the potential for conflict.

When every word matters, the pages turn more quickly, and the point the writer is trying to make sneaks into the reader’s mind more easily.

In real life, there’d be a whole police precinct full of cops, most of them of similar personality type – those are the people who enjoy police work. But for a story, one is MORE than enough. Unless it’s a police procedural, and the point is to push the in-house conflicts of a group of officers, under pressure to solve a crime, fighting over the best methods.

But in a story we have to be parsimonious in the extreme.

And this means not adding a character to a story unless he or she is there for a multitude of purposes.

Relationships are where the story’s points get made

So the interactions between the characters have to carry their weight.

Ever notice how good dialogue skips all the small talk? In life we spend lots of time inquiring about family and friends, work and leisure activities, before we settle down to something as unpleasant as having a friend on the police force look up a license plate number for us because we have a sneaking suspicion a neighbor is responsible for the new dent in our car door. In a book, the reader would go mad with boredom!

Rule #1 of writing: Don’t bore the reader!***

But the dialogue or physical interaction that remains then has to serve as many purposes as possible: information exchange, state of mind, difficulty in responding to a request that is faintly illegal, status of the friendship… plus class and education and income level of the two participants…

And to set these up, the writer should know why she picked these two particular characters, and what exactly the reader should take out of the exchange.

Setting the web of character interactions into place

1 – For continuing characters interacting with continuing characters, the story must change. We already heard what they had to say in Book 1.

2 – For new characters interacting with new characters, the story must explain why these new characters at all, and what has changed/what has remained the same in the story that the new characters reveal.

3 – For interactions between old and new characters, what is new to the story.

Not surprisingly, planning takes time and a fair amount of effort

I found myself extremely reluctant to go into the relationships when I realize how many of them there were. Then I had the above talk with myself.

So the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about characters, what gets space in the story and why, and what can be left out – because somebody has to do it.

I’m almost to the end of it, and it’s been fascinating.

And since I’ve been having the best time planning to use all this.

I almost missed it due to that reluctance (missed doing it as a unit, because I would have certainly had to do it in every scene) to dig into what seemed finished. It wasn’t.

I hope readers like the results.

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*Thanks to ShareAsImage.com for the ability to create graphics

**Dramatica – which allows me to look at a tiny piece of the puzzle at a time (drat that brain fog) and have some hope that the whole will make sense when I’m done.

*** The only rule that matters, so far as I’m concerned.

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From PLAN to PUBLISHED, writers make events HAPPEN

well structured fictionPEOPLE FORGET THAT WRITING IS WORK

It’s the most fun work I can think of, being mistress of all I survey, but sometimes it’s still work, and it takes time, and is subject to all the interruptions Life has to offer.

For all that I didn’t start polishing Book 1 (Pride’s Children: PURGATORY) until I had a complete blueprint and a rough draft of the whole story all the way to the end of Book 3, I’m finding that the original blueprint – even the one from the Great Reorganization – is merely a sketch compared to what I need to actually sit down and write every day.

Suppose you’re building a house, and you have this nice little plot of land on a hillside, and you sit out there and draw a few lines of what it might look like when it’s finished, with a porch here, and a big window in the kitchen with a view of that magnificent dogwood tree…

The house is no more real at that point than a dream, and you can’t go into the bedroom which doesn’t even appear on the drawing, and take a nap.

There’s a bit of work to be done first.

The road from dream to reality is a long one

Once the house is built or the book is finished, it has the solidity that belies its complete lack of existence before that sketch, and somehow it doesn’t FEEL any different than the sketch did, but the concept has absorbed an enormous amount of human time and energy (and money or opportunity cost).

In Spanish we say, ‘Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho,’ which means, ‘From words to action is a long way.’

Many books never get written.

Well, the reason I haven’t had much to say lately is that I’m just down in the trenches, doing the work, and it isn’t all that exciting.

But it’s incredibly necessary.

Blueprint/outline/storyform – don’t proceed without it

I’m a structuralist and an extreme plotter, partly by nature, and partly because, working on one tiny piece of the quilt at a time as I do, I have to know the pieces will fit together when I finish them.

Book 1 proved the worth, to me, of my methods: I did it exactly the way I said I was going to do it, and it worked and came together and connected and made sense.

Now for Book 2

The blueprint that I have, my Dramatica storyform and its ‘encodings’ – the sum of everything that I’ve put into the little text boxes which are the result of figuring out the structure behind this WIP, or what you might call events illustrating each structural point – was complete in concept, and even had placeholders for everything.

I had two choices: use the long-ago blueprint, and try polishing the rough draft.

Or go through every single piece and decide if it was still the best way to do that part of the story – or if it needed replacing with something better.

A lot was already good and connected and made sense.

What happens during writing?

But I’m more experienced now, and the first part of the story, a developing friendship that left its characters at a particular point with no obvious way forward, is finished.

The characters – big surprise – grew in the writing. Not changed. Grew. Things only hinted in my rough draft and master plan – happened.

That’s the only way I can describe it: until they are written in their final form, things haven’t ‘happened.’

And the blueprint for the next part needed a thorough going-over before being used to make the next set of things ‘happen.’

The eternal problem: picking up the story in the next book

Instead of choosing to understand and execute what I had planned back then, even if it was somehow part of the whole – which would have meant examining every choice I made in the storyform, and reading every bit of text I put in a text box so that I could write that better, I chose to delete most of it.

Not because it was ‘wrong,’ but because making it mine again as a whole would require that I remember why I put it there in the first place, and then that I take the time to decide if I still wanted it quite that way.

I foresaw that it would actually take me longer to go through the steps, for each entry, of figuring out what I meant back then and then deciding whether I still meant it quite that way and changing it to reflect Book 1 where necessary – than to trust that I have enough of the story encoded in my brain as a whole, and just answer all those prompts again from that gestalt.

This, I hope, will have the side effect of making the ‘new’ more connected when I start, and making the revisions – complete rewrites in most cases (as it was in Book 1) – easier when I’m working on my quilt squares.

I didn’t do that in Book 1, because I was too deep in revision by the time I really needed that one-ness, and so I found myself having to figure out whole sections AS I went.

I think this will be easier in the writing phase because I’m putting so much work into the planning phase.

And since I really need to write faster – and a major part of my time in writing the scenes in Book 1 was spent figuring out what and why – this may help me complete the next two books faster, so we can all have the whole story sooner.

Will this help Book 3?

Yes, this means I’ll have to do the same thing again for Book 3.

I naively thought I could do 2 and 3 simultaneously, and then pick up at the end of revising Book 2, and just move right into writing Book 3.

Until I realized how much work the re-planning is.

Book 3’s will have to wait.

I took extensive notes, and I’m feeling out my whole system (I’m not planning to stop writing after I finish the trilogy), and it shouldn’t be nearly as hard as for Book 2, since I won’t go through most of this questioning again, and just do it.

Learning to write is a process of finding out everything there is, and then selecting YOUR writing best practices, and finally getting practice doing it your way.

Even with refinements, and especially when you start out older, this system, if it works for you, is not going to get a lot of future change. This is one of the benefits of being more mature as a LEARNER. [And if some of you are out there, laughing at me because I’m STILL naive, so be it.]

Progress on preparing for writing again?

Those little text boxes for the Dramatica prompts? There are 71 of them, if you don’t count the character appreciations.

I’m almost finished with re-filling them, and I’m pleased that both nothing has changed – and they are filled better and more consciously and, what’s more important for me, more coherently.

They are forming a better ‘set’ than they would have, had I merely tried to remember what I was doing.

And – phew! – they have not hugely changed anything in the story that I care about.

And I have answered a bunch of niggling questions in my mind that I was putting off until ‘later.’

Character appreciations? What is she talking about?

The remaining ones, the character and character relationship apps? There are a LOT of them, but they tend to be shorter and smaller and more obvious – and require only a bit of thought or dialogue to reveal in the final version. Plus many of them carry over from the first book.

Only a few characters change from book to book. I use the Dramatica technique of handoffs: if character A represents something in Book 1, and then dies or leaves or the story moves elsewhere, then someone else is needed to represent the same thing in Book 2 or 3, and may express the ‘something’ differently.

To put that in more understandable terms: George has to go home at the end of Book 1, which will leave Andrew, just at the point where many things are heating up, without the childhood friend he trusts as a sidekick. Who will his replacement be – and how will the replacement deal with the pressures of the job – and will the replacement have the right stuff – and what will the consequences of the change be to Andrew? All questions important to the final end – and all planned in.

Hint: how is Nahrendra like George – and how is he George’s antithesis?

I’ll stop here, having talked forever about something few people will have any interest in.

But if you wondered why there weren’t more posts in between, when I have so many other things to write about, this is the reason: I’m putting in the work, and I need to stay focused until it’s done.

But trust me. It hasn’t been boring.

And it’s all necessary.

What say you? Does structure bore you or bear you up?

 

Resuming writing after hiatus depends on preparation

Preparation key to survivalWRITING IS FORWARD MOTION

Due to physical circumstances you do NOT want to hear about (I’m better now, thanks), I haven’t written a blog post since January 24th.

This is a long time for me. I usually manage to put up something or other once or twice a week, but it was literally impossible, even though I sat at the computer half the day, to put thoughts together. They would not coalesce for more than a few sentences in a row, and the fogged brain would not hold enough thought in mind for me to see anywhere to go with the following words.

Freaky. I’m used to having at least a short period every day in which I feel like myself. And I usually choose that period to spend writing.

And I usually block the internet off during that time so I don’t get distracted as much as usual (Look! A squirrel! Shiny!).

To show you how out of it I was, I could not bring myself to block anything. Write anything. Do more than click (where has all the CONTENT on the internet gone?) to try to find something I could read for a few minutes.

So none of that is important: coming back is

Yesterday, the brain came back! For a couple of hours! I blocked the internet!

And I faced the usual writer’s prospects: where the heck was I when I stopped writing?

And more importantly: what’s next?

And this is where I discovered that I have set up a number of good writerly habits which allowed me to almost pick up where I left off, automatically.

Seven choices a writer can make to prepare for the unexpected break

1. I date obsessively: Every time I have more than a few minutes’ break during writing, and to indicate there has been a break from the previous thoughts, I date the next entry. Scrivener makes this easy: OPT-CMD-SHFT-D automatically inserts the date and time at the cursor’s position. Sometimes this results in a single line, occasionally in a blank date entry, but it means I know where each time period started. And which pieces go together.

2. I think on the page: partly this is due to my CFS brain fog, but partly it is due to the fact that memory is unreliable, elusive, and the brilliant idea you have may disappear so completely if you don’t write it down that you don’t even remember having it! If you’re very lucky, similar circumstances may deliver that bit again – and then you’ll experience a shock of recognition. But don’t count on it! Record it.

3. I create a digital version: I have twenty notebooks filled with the ideas that have led to my books and stories. In a mostly-legible handwriting, though even I can find my own words illegible. But creating those notebooks took a lot of time, and so those ideas are often incomplete. Finding ideas, even with my brief list of contents on the front page of each notebook, is a nightmare. I’m a fast typist – and can store far more information when typing than when writing by hand in the same amount of time. The biggest benefit? DIGITAL is SEARCHABLE. It may take me a while, and going through every Scrivener project associated with the WIP, but if I can remember ANYTHING about an idea, I can find it.

4. I Journal obsessively: the amount of text in any one of my Scrivener projects reaches the tens of MBs. Pride’s Children: PURGATORY has at least three Scrivener projects with almost 100MB of text each. Within each project, each major subsection has a Journal, into which I dump anything not specific that runs through my head as I work.

5. I keep ideas in their own computer files: Scrivener makes this extremely easy. When I have a piece of an idea long enough to take up more than a line or two in the current Journal, I simply create a new file in the appropriate section, title it with the obvious, and dump a chunk of text into it. Later, I can search by title or contents, but a quick way for me, the human, to find the file in the list of files (the Binder) is convenient.

6. I save frequently: the thought of losing anything I’ve spent time creating – thoughts which fly from my head through my fingers and out onto the screen – and having to re-create them from scratch (I literally DUMP them out and scour the brain for all the bits and then FORGET them), terrifies me.

7. I back up conscientiously: my systems do a lot of automatic backing up, but, for example, when I have the internet blocked, I have disabled Dropbox – which means I have only my local external hard drive as a backup device (besides the software and Mac backups). Which means I have to turn it on, back up, and then turn it back off (it is very quiet, but has the tendency to come on when not asked to, and there IS a tiny high-pitched whine that drives me nuts). As soon as the internet is connected again, Dropbox provides another level of backup.

So how did preparation save my bacon?

I was out for ten days. Any trace of knowing where I was had vanished from the internal HD (the poor tortured brain) in the first couple of days.

As when I start a new project, it can take me days, weeks, months of pulling all the pieces together before I can start actually writing more than snippets. I had already done that, and was just at the point where ALL those pieces, loaded into the brain just right, were about to produce the final version of calendar/timeline/scenes that I need to write.

Yup, the bug picked the most vulnerable time possible to take me out: right before synthesis. Chalk one up for Murphy’s corollary: ‘Anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible time.’

Under the best of circumstances, synthesis is something I attempt only with my prime mind. I must be as rested and prepared as possible. It can’t be toward the end of a working day. Nor can it be before I feel a certain je ne sais quoi which tells me I’m in as good a state as I’ll ever be (a state sadly lacking since January 27th).

I start synthesis with a clean mind, and carefully load in every relevant piece, do the necessary thinking (!), and write everything down like crazy so the cross-connections don’t fail me. I live off that synthesis for the remainder of the time it takes me to revise the whole book.

I had everything loaded into the brain, and decided to tackle the synthesis clean the next morning. The Jan. 27 Journal entry reads: ‘The only thing left to do before I start the next phase is to make sure the dates on the scenes I have work okay.’

That night was hell.

Recovery was possible because EVERYTHING was there

Yesterday, when I finally felt human again, the first thing I did was to try to figure out where I was, before the Apocalypse hit.

I could not remember a word.

My desk was a pile of things which collected over ten days with no one at the helm, including detailed medical notes of what I took when what happened, and the results, naps and sleep and awake in the middle of the night time.

The disjointed ramblings (yes, I did write things down when I couldn’t think – that usually works; it didn’t this time) were duly recorded, but made no sense.

I did what the Time Machine does on a Mac: I went back to January 26th. I let Scrivener search for every file that had been changed on that day (about 20) and the 27th, as I was doing the last of my collecting.

I dumped everything since then out of my head, and RELOADED my brain.

I read for what seemed like hours.

And the past ten horrible days were as if they had never happened. Yesterday got me almost back to the final synthesis place when my good time ended, and today I hope to go the last steps I would have taken on the 28th.

And I could also blog again, so I did what I do – and recorded everything for my own benefit – for next time.

There is ALWAYS a next time.

I hope any of these choices are helpful. The brain is a wonderful thing, until it isn’t. I don’t trust mine any more – but I can live with that.

What say you?

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Thanks to ShareAsImage.com for a quick way to create visuals for blog posts.